Michelle and I are finishing up our stay in Nicaragua. It looks like I’ll go home fishless. Neither the Pacific Ocean nor Laguna del Tigre—a volcanic crater lake that was almost devoid of human visitors—has seen fit to reward my most earnest efforts. At least I haven’t lost any more lures.

This place is insanely fertile or has extremely determined plants. Or both. It is not unusual, for example, to see wooden fence posts that, having been cut and placed in the ground, sprout leaves and roots.

The variety of stuff that grows here is staggering. And it’s a competitive place. These plants know that if they can’t constantly defend their little patch of soil, they’ll be overrun. As a result, the vegetable kingdom in Nicaragua is well armed. If it has roots, it has thorns. I’m not talking ornamental ones. These would get you arrested if you tried to board a plane with one. And they’re everywhere. I was walking along the crest of the crater yesterday, stopped to admire some particularly nasty-looking brush, and caught myself just as I started to lean against a tree whose bark would have have torn me up like a cheese grater. This place makes south Texas look like a municipal park.

A plant that doesn’t have thorns isn’t benign. It’s just using a different defense. The pica-pica vine is an example. Brush ever so lightly against its fine hairs and the itching it causes nearly incapacitates you. At certain times of its life, its seed pods will make you itch. At others, the entire plant does. It’s as if the pica-pica wanted to be liked in its early evolution, discovered that it had difficulty making friends, and decided that it would take its revenge by becoming known as the most itch-producing plant in the tropical landscape.

There is something called cornizuelo, a shrublike tree bristling—naturally—with thorns. The thorns aren’t anything special. Just your average, 3-inch-long, life-ending daggers. What you really have to watch out for are the fire ants that live inside them. “You get a few of those guys on you and you’ll wish they were thorns,” my friend said.

It’s funny what images stick in the mind. Of everything I’ve seen here—including volcanoes, big waves, and weird architecture—the thing I’ll remember most is a line of ants we saw one evening hiking back up the hill from the beach. There was a black belt about 2 inches wide crossing the path, one that seemed to pulse and change shape slightly from moment to moment. It wasn’t just that they were the most tightly packed and disciplined group of ants I’d ever seen. It was also that they were, in ant terms, hauling butt. Flying. Scrambling over each other and about 10 deep and 40 ants across. We stopped and looked at them for a while, marveling at their collective willpower. It was impossible to tell how many there were, how long this belt extended, or whether they were heading away from something or toward something. They weren’t carrying anything. But I’ll tell you what: That whole living belt of ants hummed. There was no doubt in my mind that I was looking at a single, conscious thing. One that understood that every moment in this place is a life-or-death struggle.

Photo by Michelle Gienow